Sandra Rothenberg spends a lot of time with her birds.
She spends hours outside her Stone Hill Road home enjoying them — watching them, listening to them, and sometimes capturing national award-winning photos of them.
Rothenberg’s image of a female Baltimore oriole surrounded by a wispy veil of horsehair won the Female Birds Prize in the 2023 Audubon Photography Awards.
“I am honored to have been chosen,” Rothenberg said.
The award is icing on the cake. She would enjoy the birds without the recognition.
Orioles are among Rothenberg’s favorites.
“Since I was a little girl they’ve been building nests in our yards here,” she said. “They build these beautiful, pendulous nests that are shaped liked a pear. I’ve been privileged to see them.”
She was in her blind watching the birds come and go, keeping her eye out for a special image.
“I spend a lot of time outside in Warren photographing the beautiful birds,” she said. “Sometimes in May, I spend five hours or more outside.”
One day, an industrious female collected several strands of horsehair — more than the usual haul — for her nest, and Rothenberg was in position to capture the moment.
“It’s unusual,” she said. “Normally, a female oriole comes in and takes one strand of horsehair to build her nest then flies off and weaves it in.”
“This particular female took an entire clump,” Rothenberg said. “She’s entirely surrounded. It was quite comical.”
The nest material did not inhibit the bird’s flight.
“She flew off as easily as could be,” Rothenberg said.
Female birds are not as prized by photographers as their male counterparts that almost always have brighter plumage. The Audubon Society has offered the Female Birds Category to help recognize photographers who capture the females.
Rothenberg wasn’t particularly aiming for a photo of a female. She sent three photos in to the Audubon competition for judging.
She does, however, do her best to keep orioles around.
“I always feed the orioles,” she said. “They love grape jelly.”
She borrows some nest materials from her sister and her horses just up the road to help keep her visitors comfortable.
“There’s lots of horsehair available,” Rothenberg said.
Near the jelly and the horsehair is a spot for Rothenberg to keep watch.
“I have a photography blind,” she said. “It’s a little tiny shed. I have camouflage material hanging down so I can see the birds but they don’t see me. I just stand there for hours and hours taking photos of whatever comes by.”
For the shot of the oriole, Rothenberg used a Sony Alpha 1 mirrorless camera with a 200-600mm zoom lens.
“I keep the aperture wide open,” she said. “It lets in more light so I can have a faster shutter speed.”
The wide open — low — aperture setting results in a shallow depth of field in the photo –the subject is in sharp focus and everything else is blurred. The winning photo has a pleasantly-blurred green background. “I’m shooting up a hill,” Rothenberg said. “The background is green grass. It complements the orange of the birds.”
Warren County is a good place for nature photography. “I feel so lucky to live in such a spectacular natural area,” Rothenberg said.
She has advice — for those looking to take some great pictures of birds or those looking for something to do.
“My advice would be to get outside as often as you can, listen to the birds, watch the birds,” she said. “You learn so much from them. They are so calming and energizing at the same time.”